Lore and lies about underground passages fascinate

January 10, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimoreans gobble up stories about the older parts of town being crisscrossed by secret tunnels.

I have heard people speak, with seeming absolute authority, of the presence of a network of passages in Seton Hill, all through West Baltimore and, if you can believe this one, under Herring Run.

Some of these fanciful underground trails are said to have helped rum runners. Other stories claim these burrows were part of the Underground Railroad. If true, these ways must have been as busy as rush hour at the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

And just as much as Baltimoreans like to believe lore and lies about imagined tunnels, they can't get the facts right about real tunnels.

If you want to stump someone, ask about the Howard Street, Baltimore and Potomac or Union tunnels. These 19th century cavities are in use daily, by dozens of long railroad trains. Because they are not imaginary, they seem to hold less fascination.

Back to our tunnel visions. Over the years, large chunks of Federal Hill Park, the neighborhood and parts of South Baltimore have collapsed. There was a major 1951 cave-in under the 600 block of E. Clement St. The newspapers had a lot of fun with the story.

Donald Stewart, who lived on Warren Avenue in that era, was one of Baltimore's army of tunnel theorists. He also played a major role in getting the public's attention focused on the Constellation.

He propounded that there was a secret underground passage between Federal Hill and Camden Station. It was allegedly built about the time of the War of 1812, but was said to have been enlarged and strengthened during the Civil War.

"The Union Army rebuilt the tunnels for troops to march through from their trains at Camden Station to either Federal Hill or to boats, and they were used largely by wounded soldiers and others coming from the South, especially Fortress Monroe," Mr. Stewart said in a 1951 interview.

According to Stewart's theory of tunnel construction, this massive underground link was the work of the Fifth New York Zouaves, a Union Army engineering unit, and 153 former slaves assisted by 100 wagons and 200 horses.

Note that no one has ever discovered this tunnel. And note that no account of its Federal Hill-Camden Station construction was ever published in a local newspaper. But I presume the true believers would cite military secrecy and censorship of the press.

There are a couple of reasons why the Stewart tunnel tales gained a willing audience.

The first is Baltimore's insatiable appetite for this variety of story. Call it a predisposition to believe. (A cousin to the underground passage story is the underground spring. It's used by contractors to explain tardiness and construction cost increases.)

Secondly, there is the fact that streets and hillsides have been known to sink and fall because of the presence of unsupported underground cavities. To call all these holes tunnels is to give them a dignity they never possessed or deserved.

A number of South Baltimore residents were once employed to dig clay deposits from the land where rowhouses were later constructed.

Henry W. Meseke Sr., writing in 1952, supplied one of the best explanations. In the 1880s, the Baltimore Terra Cotta Works, owned by the Rittenhouse family and located to the east of the 1200 block of Riverside Avenue, had a profitable enterprise going. Meseke recalled from firsthand experience that the firm hired local residents to dig down some 20 feet and remove the clay.

"From the surface, from the bed of the street or from the banks on the side, we would dig more or less straight down four or five feet until we hit a layer of top clay, a blue and yellowish substance that was used in the making of terra cotta pipe. Three or four feet farther down we would run into the best clay of all -- that employed in the making of fire brick used in lining furnaces and the familiar parlor stove of that era."

There have been other theories about the Federal Hill cave-ins. Researchers have pointed out the brick, sand and glass works that once stood at the base of the hill on what is now Key Highway. There were also breweries which needed bottle glass made from sand, and storage vaults to keep the beer cold.

The beer-cooler theory may account for the vaults dug into the sides of Federal Hill. A fairly large one was discovered a little more than two years ago on the northern slope of the hill. It was a cavity tunneled out from white sand.

Another South Baltimore resident recalled standing on the steps of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Riverside Avenue and looking toward Fort McHenry. He could see the ground pockmarked with clay holes, some of which had been filled with oyster shells. The terra cotta pipe had a practical use as Baltimore homes were being converted from outhouses to indoor plumbing.

zTC

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